Is AA simply faith healing with a higher power?

Is AA simply faith healing with a higher power? Would you treat Cancer with a “higher power”.

The 12 steps of AA do not always “work if you work it”, although that is what is often claimed by faithful members of the AA “congregation” I do not believe that the steps do anything other than turn alcoholism into a moral issue. This makes sense when you realise that the program of “alcoholics anonymous” was formed in the 1930’s straight after prohibition. It took many of its views from the Christian Oxford group, which Bill Wilson had joined, including the steps. I view the steps as “faith Healing”.


If you wish to learn more about the formation and effectiveness of AA I would recommend this new book by Lance Dodes, “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry”. I have reviewed it myself here It is certainly an eye opener!

I did try to make AA work for me but as time went on I just could not see much use in the program. I was asked to sponsor a new member and as I worked through the steps with him, I realised that I simply had no faith in them at all. I left AA and moved on after some really good counselling. I felt AA was more about getting people to pray than helping them recover, and that so many members were so stuck in their ways, that it was actually impeding many new member’s progress, with its out of date ideas and traditions.

I have no doubt that having some fellowship and getting involved with something will have some value for many, but I do not view the 12 steps as a rational solution. Despite this, many in AA are fanatical about the steps and their whole life revolves around them. Like many who have experienced a religious conversion, they become evangelical and irrational about the method they have chosen and will preach it to anyone. They feel their solution will work for anyone.

Many call alcoholism a disease, especially in America, where the 12 step world of rehabs has a powerful lobby. They then try to push the 12 steps as the only viable solution for this disease, which they claim is cunning, powerful and baffling. They use anecdotes to push the effectiveness of their method, rather than any evidence, which they will dispute if confronted by any argument against them. This has resulted in a huge industry being based on the steps, which are faith healing! Even AA could be viewed as a business selling the “Big Book” which is pushed on every new member and often discarded shortly afterwards.

The approach in America is rather different for real diseases such as cancer, where faith healing is not considered to be the best practice in the modern world. There are those who push faith-based techniques, and claim evidence that they work in a similar way to AA members do with their steps. These positive outcomes are often the result of spontaneous remission, and is not evidence of the work of a “higher power” or the “laying of hands”.

Anybody claiming to cure cancer with a higher power will be laughed at in most places! Yet this is not the case with alcoholism which is claimed to be a spiritual disease. Below is a section from the website www, on faith healing. Here is a link to the whole  piece

If you change the word cancer for the word alcoholism, which many 12 step believers claim to be a disease, you actually get a critical view of a method of healing which is dependant on the cooperation of a higher power.

This is the original piece about cancer which is not a made up disease!

Faith Healing

Other common name(s): spiritual healing, laying on of hands

Scientific/medical name(s): none


Faith healing is founded on the belief that certain people or places have the ability to cure and heal—that someone or something can eliminate disease or heal injuries through a close connection to a higher power. Faith healing can involve prayer, a visit to a religious shrine, or simply a strong belief in a supreme being.


Available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can cure cancer or any other disease. Some scientists suggest that the number of people who attribute their cure to faith healing is lower than the number predicted by calculations based on the historical percentage of spontaneous remissions seen among people with cancer. However, faith healing may promote peace of mind, reduce stress, relieve pain and anxiety, and strengthen the will to live.

How is it promoted for use?

According to proponents, there is little that faith healing cannot do. Many religious sects claim faith can cure blindness, deafness, cancer, AIDS, developmental disorders, anemia, arthritis, corns, defective speech, multiple sclerosis, skin rashes, total body paralysis, and various injuries. Certain religious groups, for instance, believe that illness is an illusion that can be healed through prayer, either for oneself or by trained practitioners.

What does it involve?

Faith healing can be practiced near the patient or at a distance from the patient. When practiced from afar, it can involve a single faith healer or a group of people praying for the patient. When near to the patient, as in revivalist tent meetings, the healer often touches, or “lays hands on,” the patient while calling on a supreme being. Faith healing can also involve a pilgrimage to a religious shrine, such as the French shrine at Lourdes, in search of a miracle. Some groups train and use their own practitioners to heal sick persons through prayer.

What is the history behind it?

Faith healing is believed to have begun even before the earliest recorded history. In the Bible, both God and holy people are said to have the power to heal. In Medieval times, the Divine Right of Kings was thought to give royalty the ability to heal through touch. Through the years, up to and including the twentieth century, there have been numerous reports of saints performing miracle cures. Today, a number of religious groups practice some form of faith healing.

What is the evidence?

Although it is known that a small percentage of people with cancer experience remissions of their disease that cannot be explained, available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can actually cure physical ailments. When a person believes strongly that a healer can create a cure, a “placebo effect” can occur. The placebo effect can make the person feel better, but it has not been found to induce remission or improve chance of survival from cancer. The patient usually credits the improvement in how he or she feels to the healer, even though the perceived improvement occurs because of the patient’s belief in the treatment. Taking part in faith healing can evoke the power of suggestion and affirm one’s faith in a higher power, which may help promote peace of mind. This may help some people cope more effectively with their illness.

One review published in 1998 looked at 172 cases of deaths among children treated by faith healing instead of conventional methods. These researchers estimated that if conventional treatment had been given, the survival rate for most of these children would have been more than 90 percent, with the remainder of the children also having a good chance of survival. A more recent study found that more than 200 children had died of treatable illnesses in the United States over the past thirty years because their parents relied on spiritual healing rather than conventional medical treatment.

Although there are few studies in adults, one study conducted in 1989 suggested that adult Christian Scientists, who generally use prayer rather than medical care, have a higher death rate than other people of the same age.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

People who seek help through faith healing and are not cured may have feelings of hopelessness, failure, guilt, worthlessness, and depression. In some groups, the person may be told that his or her faith was not strong enough. The healer and others may hold the person responsible for the failure of their healing. This can alienate and discourage the person who is still sick.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences. Death, disability, and other unwanted outcomes have occurred when faith healing was elected instead of medical care for serious injuries or illnesses.

While competent adults may choose faith healing over medical care, communities often become concerned when parents make such choices for their children. This concern has sparked organizations to work toward creating laws to protect children from inappropriate treatment by faith healers.

Finally, a few “faith healers” have been caught using fraud as a way to get others to believe in their methods. These people often solicited large donations or charged money for their healing sessions.

I find the last section “Are there any possible problems or complications?” accurately describes many of the problems that people face in AA. Anyone who does not succeed there, is seen to be not following the program perfectly and are blamed for their failure.  This line “feelings of hopelessness, failure, guilt, worthlessness, and depression” also really does happen rather a lot to those who follow the Bill Wilson solution.

I have no objection to people using the church or religion as a way of finding some comfort or fellowship, especially in difficult times. I do object when it is dressed up as something else, and pushed on people as some kind of worthwhile solution. I am glad that many are now speaking out and being critical of the 12 step world and that hopefully more effective solutions that will help a greater number of people asking for help can become dominant.

I do not think that AA could have grown anywhere other than America after prohibition and been taken seriously! This has resulted in a chaotic treatment system for many suffering from addiction and alcoholism, that is of no use to them.




Commenting area

  1. Oddly enough, I found some interesting parallels in chronic pain/undiagnosed pain treatment circles. While based a bit more on science, unfortunately, it still falls into the hands of the practitioner. Not to go into it terribly much, I was injured last Fall and despite knowing I was injured, when MRIs were inconclusive I was sent from physical therapist to physical therapist. I ended up hearing the strangest things, but they weren’t foreign to me entirely, having had relatives with ailments such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, along with chronic myofascial pain. The conditions that all center on the inability of doctors to find the underlying cause, though because frequently there is a component of nervous system sensitization, much of the treatment ideas focus heavily on non-medical solutions.

    There are loads of websites devoted to these conditions, as well as ideas and methods (some being marketed, some simply shared on forums) that go in and out of vogue every so often. I wouldn’t characterize it as faith healing in the same way that substance abuse treatment is, certainly not a 12 step program, but the focus is generally on trying to calm down the nervous system a bit, which in turn means trying to calm patients using recommendations for everything from diaphragmatic breathing and meditation (I enjoy both, and they have their merits, but they aren’t going to fix an injury or certain other medical conditions) to the general well-being and diet choices.

    What I did find interesting was learning about certain programs (and running into their adherents) such as that of John Sarno’s (, who has come up with the idea/pseudo diagnosis of Tension Myositis Syndrome ( What Sarno’s ideas hinge on is the idea of pain as psychosomatic, and it is startling how many doctors out there jump into these camps when you hit the fringes of the medical community (muscle injuries, pain that has yet to be properly diagnosed, and the specialists who deal with these conditions, etc.). The similarity to 12 step programs being that it is something in your own psychology/character that is causing the problem, not a concrete medical problem that can be conventionally healed or treated. Chronic pain forums and circles hinge on these ideas; accept your situation, meditate more, let go of anger or you will never heal, and many ideas that reminded me of character defect listings and the like. Acceptance and letting go, being treated by a psychologist instead of a physician for a medical problem. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been told in the last several months that my problems were likely psychosomatic due to me appearing to be a “type a personality”.

    Sorry for the long rant, but I found your post interesting as well as the parallels, not to mention my reaction to this being similar to the one I had to 12 step treatment centers. Luckily, I was finally diagnosed with rather extensive soft tissue injuries, and found appropriate treatment, wiping away any of the ideas that had been floated at me that I had muscles spasming out of control because I was “holding onto anger” or being too much of a perfectionist. No, they were just torn muscles…lol. Nevertheless, take a look on the web and see just how much near-faith healing is out there aimed at frustrated sufferers of everything from fibromyalgia to chronic pelvic pain. Unfortunately, many people who are in terrible pain end up paying out fortunes to people with absurd theories in alternative medicine (nothing new), but I was shocked at how much this had crept into mainstream medicine in the U.S. I just find it sad. In almost every case, there is likely an entrapped or compressed nerve, a torn muscle or something else not easily picked up on conventional non-contrast MRIs, leading people down long endless roads of self-examination instead of concrete, scientific treatment.

    • My partner had some similar issues- I am really tired after work but will try to do a better response tomorrow! The last few years have made me cautious of the whole medical profession.

  2. Long story short, there is no scientific explanation with a solid “cure” for substance abuse (or withdrawals, for that matter). There are no specialists in Western medicine (and it doesn’t get much better in the East, from what I’ve read) who focus on muscles or fascia (or much soft tissue at all). So those left suffering in the void get thrown a lot of faith healing, which tends to in turn bend towards some measure of blame on the sufferer. And treatments based on either faith healing or guesswork or a weird mixture of them.

  3. I am sorry to see that you have also had these types of issues with poor diagnosis. Mrs Lovinglife52 also had similar problems with poor pain management and bad diagnosis. A surgeon with a huge reputation failed to notice signs of infection on an X ray and refused an MRI, sent her away saying that old pain paths were to blame for her discomfort. A week later the screws holding instrumentation in her spine came out breaking another vertebrae. After having several operations that have still not fixed the damage, she was sent to a pain management course where she was met by an “evangelical counsellor” similar to the type in the 12 step recovery world which she has also been through and rejected.

    This resulted in more pain after incorrect advice and her original pain consultant was horrified by some of the treatment. He pointed out that while some people do have existing pain paths, such as those who have had a limb amputated others have a very specific reason for pain. a one size fits all solution does not fit all, once again.

    The only good thing that came out of this was that we were introduced to mindfulness as a result of this, and although she did not find it beneficial, I did, and have been using it for several years. I can remember talking about this with Ilse when the Stinkin Thinkin site was going, and they were talking about doing the book with Stanton. At that point, I was the only one there using mindfulness regularly. It has really helped me over the years. It is certainly not a cure for pain though! I can see how things such as the body scan may make a difference to some and it certainly helps me notice tight muscles etc, but is certainly not a cure for everything, although people are pushing it for all kinds of reasons. It will probably help with acceptance of pain but I doubt that it would stop it in many cases, although it can rewire the brain over a long period of time and is useful for stroke victims etc. It is not a short term solution, but may help in the long term with plenty of practice. I do however think the approach in Stanton’s and Ilse’s book is very good for addiction and I have followed the metta style meditation for a couple of months everyday and it has had a positive effect on me.

    The last few years have made me very suspicious of all areas of the medical world.I have been involved in a legal case which we one and found a lot of the evidence rather unnerving. We have a long way to go before we really understand what is going on in our bodies. Things improve slowly, and not all solutions are problem free. I think it is worth getting as many opinions as possible any treatment. Some surgeons will promise unrealistic recovery, and mistakes can have an impact for the rest of your life. When you have a bad experience like this, it really puts issues in life in perspective! I try to make good use of my time on this planet these days as I never know what is round the corner. I hope things improve for you.

  4. Well, you got lucky. My computer shut down and I lost my rather long reply! OK, you didn’t get that lucky, you just got a less well thought out long reply…lol.

    I’m very sorry that happened to Mrs. LovingLife52! To be misdiagnosed and have things missed on scans is one thing when it’s an injury, quite different when it is life threatening as in the case of infection! I certainly hope she is OK now. I heard similar things about pain pathways, and how I must have been “stuck” in them, but no one bothered to check the torn muscles or notice them on scans. I’ll be fine now, I have an excellent team.

    I had discovered meditation shortly before injury via some practicing Buddhists I know, and admittedly was a bit surprised at the suggestion of doing it via Cabot Zinn’s repackaging as mindfulness (this was what was specifically suggested to me). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but regardless. The main points were the shock at how much of this focuses on the self and things YOU are likely doing, thinking or simply existing wrongly with that are causing your pain as opposed to actual diagnostics. I heard one too many times that I am a “type A personality”. That’s all well and good, but I was an injured one who required a radiologist who was at least qualified to read a scan.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with this story or not, but this woman was misdiagnosed for over a year (she had terminal lung cancer) due to doctors chalking her symptoms up to anxiety and depression: This was in the UK, also, and I just find it alarming that medical doctors are making psychological diagnoses–while ignoring their own specialties and diagnosing the medical issues–when they are in no way mental health professionals.

    Acceptance is all well and good when the problem has been dealt with medically, but being told that resentment and anger and a lack of acceptance were keeping me from healing brought back some bad memories–especially as I had extensive injuries that cannot be cured by an attitude change of any kind!

    I was diagnosed with a chronically painful condition 20 years ago, and I was in bad shape early on, and the medical treatments for it and stemming from it landed me in the addiction mess (partly) that messed up my life so terribly. The thing is, once I realized that it was not progressive, not actively damaging me, I was able to shut off the pain. It is possible to do, and I have done it for years now. I have noticed, however, that those who remain in support groups for this condition tend to stay in remarkably bad shape. Perhaps they are just more affected by it than I am, though I was at one time in as bad of shape as most of them, but it reminded me a bit of AA as well. They keep the problem and constant search for medical solutions front and center in their lives. I ignored it until I stopped feeling even the pain, and if I do feel it, I isolate it (I suppose that is similar to the body scan technique, though I didn’t know it when I started doing it), acknowledge it, then find the place in my brain that is registering it as pain and somehow just shut it off. I tried sharing this with the support group folks once, but they simply insisted that such a thing wasn’t possible. Oh well.

    (interesting side note, and apologies for going on so long, but I was once told by a group of AAs that I was lucky to have the chronic condition I mentioned above, which would result in physical pain too bad to consider if I drank alcohol, because it “saved” me from having to suffer the disease of alcoholism. Think about that for a minute: lucky to have an actual disease because it prevented the possibility of alcoholism. Now that is baffling, if not cunning or powerful.)

  5. I tend not to use mindfulness for any specific aim and do not set out to examine something in advance. I tend to just go with the flow and see what comes up, and find it a useful way of looking at emotions and re- framing certain things. Certainly something like the body scan can be very relaxing and help with de-stressing.
    Incorrect diagnosis of cancer does happen from time to time and is one of things that happens sadly. The general tests, such as blood are normally good markers but some people do not show many symptoms until they undergo invasive procedures. That was the case with my mother who was seriously ill anyway.
    The AA thing you mention is quite crazy but does not surprise me, I am glad I have moved on from that method.

  6. I’m glad you moved on as well. Moving on is a good thing, in a great many cases.

    It is simply sad, this subject, to me. The solution is the same as with substance abuse treatment, keep looking until you find a correct diagnosis and treatment. It is useful to learn meditation (and the body scan method) in the process, so there is that silver lining!

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